NATIONAL DAY OF COMMEMORATION

Commemoration at Kilmainham Photo: RTE News

Commemoration at Kilmainham Photo: RTE News

Uachtarán na hÉireann Michael D Higgins led the national Day of Commemoration ceremony this morning at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham in Dublin. Similar ceremonies took place at seven other locations across the state. The multi-faith and military ceremonies honoured all Irishmen and Irishwomen who died in wars or on service with the United Nations. The Dublin event was attended by the President, the Taoiseach, the Government and Council of State, as well as members of the diplomatic corps, Defence Forces, veterans’ organisations, the judiciary and Northern Ireland representatives. In this latter category it was interesting to note the presence of the Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt along with the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir of Sinn Féin.

I watched the service which was broadcast live on RTE1 television. The military part of the ceremony was carried out with great precision and the music played by the Army No.1 Band under the baton of Lt Col. Mark Armstrong added to the solemnity of the occasion.

BALMORAL SHOW AT MAZE

Army No.1 Band at Balmoral Park

Army No.1 Band at Balmoral Park

The Maze was once the site of Northern Ireland’s high security jail, spread out over 360 acres. Today saw a new chapter in its history as thousands made their way to Balmoral Park, the new venue for the annual Royal Ulster Agricultural Society show. Helping to entertain the crowds in the main arena was the Army No.1 Band from Cathal Brugha Barracks in Dublin, under the direction on this occasion of Captain Fergal Carroll.

Who would have thought that 13 years after the closure of the prison in 2000 and the release under the Good Friday agreement of the remaining loyalist and republican paramilitaries who had served sentences, that an Irish Army presence would be welcomed there. In addition, I noticed the tricolour flying alongside the Union flag and the flag of Canada in the same arena, where the showjumping was held.

Capt. Geoff Curran & Army No.1 Band

Capt. Geoff Curran & Army No.1 Band

As the band was performing for the second time, the riders were coming out to inspect the course for their competition. Among them was Captain Geoff Curran from the Army Equitation School at McKee Barracks in Dublin, who met Queen Elizabeth during her visit to the National Stud in County Kildare in May 2011.

In the past, the cages on this site were the H-blocks, housing prisoners. Now the only cages and huts are those holding animals and livestock. There is just the hospital wing and part of the H-blocks remaining.

Looking towards remains of prison site with wall and watchtowers © Michael Fisher

Looking towards remains of prison site with wall and watchtowers © Michael Fisher

It has taken many months of planning to get the Balmoral Show to its new site at The Maze. I passed by recently on the M1 motorway and saw in the near distance the extensive tented village and the hard standing for the car park area. Today I was able to enjoy a visit to the complex. Translink had put on special transport arrangements for public transport, including a shuttle bus to and from Balmoral Park from Lisburn station.

Translink shuttle bus service from Lisburn

Translink shuttle bus service from Lisburn

The journey to the show via Hillsborough and Culcavy took half an hour but the return at 6:30pm took half the time. My sister-in-law travelling from Monaghan and others heading from West of the Bann trying to reach the show from the M1 motorway ran into great difficulty. She took four hours, having left at 9am. The former Ulster Unionist leader Tom Ellliott MLA had a similar story. He left Fermanagh at 8:30am along with two children in the car and did not reach the showgrounds until 1:30pm! His successor Mike Nesbitt though had no such problems and told me he had taken less than half an hour to reach Balmoral Park.

Ulster Unionist Leader Mike Nesbitt MLA

Ulster Unionist Leader Mike Nesbitt MLA

 For more background on the move to the Maze site and the programme of events see my post in March.

UNIONIST DIS-UNITY

Mike Nesbitt

Mike Nesbitt

What happens next is what happens next”   That’s my nomination for quote of the week. You can now see why ex media star Mike Nesbitt is leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. His ability to state the obvious with ease and not answer any difficult questions from interviewers, now that he is on the other side of the microphone or the camera. Mike had been asked on BBC’s Good Morning Ulster (1:58:00) about the future direction of the UUP and whether there would be other agreed unionist candidiates in future elections. The question arose following the resignation from the party last night of former deputy leader John McCallister MLA, over the UUP/DUP decision to run an agreed unionist candidate in the Mid-Ulster by-election, which I wrote about yesterday. Mr Nesbitt described the move as a “one-off”, but some wondered if it would just be the start of the end for the UUP and its amalgamation with the larger party led by Peter Robinson.

Then came a second bombshell for the UUP. Lagan Valley Basil McCrea MLA did an interview with the Nolan Show on BBC Radio Ulster in which he announced his resignation. He hinted that plans were underway for the formation of a new “opposition” party along with Mr McCallister and the East Londonderry independent MLA David McClarty (formerly UUP).

Mr McClarty told the same programme on the BBC anybody who was a betting person would have put their money on John and Basil going at some stage. It happened extremely quickly, and it wrong-footed an awful lot of people, he said.  Mr McClarty said the UUP had lost its way. The Ulster Unionist Party is sending out mixed messages; they want to be progressive and pluralist, he said, yet they really have now turned this bye-election into a sectarian head count and we’re back to tribal politics. The three will be keeping in contact over the next few weeks and it remains to be seen what plans they will come up with.

One of the criticisms made by Basil McCrea was that the choice of one candidate on the unionist side (who is unlikely to win the seat anyway, given the current level of support for nationalist parties) would lead to a sectarian dogfight on the campaign trail. DUP leader Peter Robinson rejected this and said unionism was not sectarian.

The agreed unionist representative is Nigel Lutton, an orangeman who has worked with Protestant victims’ groups and whose father was shot dead by the IRA in 1979, shortly after he had left the RUC Reserve. Sinn Féin are putting forward Francie Molloy and the SDLP candidate is deputy party leader Patsy McGlone.

Patsy McGlone

Patsy McGlone

He hit out at the decision by the two unionist party leaders to back Mr Lutton and said it had the potential to reduce the by-election into a bitter sectarian struggle, echoing the views of Basil McCrea. He felt it would only create deeper tribalism. He claimed that Mike Nesbitt was leading the Ulster Unionist Party into electoral oblivion and was denying the electorate a choice. Eric Bullick will run for the Alliance party.

UNIONIST UNITY?

ToryUUPAnyone remember UCUNF? An electoral pact reuniting the Conservative and Ulster Unionist parties in 2009 for the European Parliament election. Jim Nicholson was elected an MEP under this banner of Ulster Conservatives and Unionists — New Force. Although he is a member of the ECR group, his personal website now lists him as a UUP member, following the demise of the arrangement in June 2012.  The UCUNF banner was also used in the Westminster general election in 2010, but the alliance failed to deliver even one MP.

Reg Empey resigned as UUP leader and is now  on the Conservative benches in the House of Lords along with a predecessor, David Trimble. Sir Reg was replaced by Fermanagh/South Tyrone MLA Tom Elliott, who stood down in 2012. The UUP elected former UTV presenter Mike Nesbitt as leader. He has had a difficult job to keep the party together. An ongoing row with Basil McCrea that resulted in the Lagan Valley MLA being ticked off after an internal disciplinary hearing.

Basil McCrea MLA

Basil McCrea

Then there was the loss of moderate unionist David McClarty, who was deselected by the party for the Assembly election in May 2011. David McNarry resigned from the party in January 2012 and now sits in the Assembly as a member of UKIP. Tonight comes the news that South Down MLA John McCallister has resigned from the UUP and will sit as an independent unionist. He told the party leader:

“Your determination to act in concert with the DUP – over parades, flags and Forum – has significantly contributed to forcing Northern Ireland politics back into the sectarian trenches”.

Mr McCallister made a very interesting speech last month to a heritage group across the border in Killanny, Co.Louth (near Carrickmacross, Co.Monaghan) in which he hit out at plans for a unionist forum to deal with the flags issue. He described it as a “cul-de-sac” for unionism.

At the same time as this leakage from the Ulster Unionist Assembly mainstream, the UUP leader is talking to the DUP leader Peter Robinson, first of all in the context of the Forum and now in a move towards electoral unity in a constituency west of the Bann. The two leaders announced their selection of a joint unionist candidate for the Mid-Ulster bye-election. This is the Westminster “seat” held, but not taken up by, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, the deputy First Minister. The man who has the backing of Mr Robinson and Mr Nesbitt is Nigel Lutton, whose father, a 39 year-old RUC Reservist, was shot dead by the IRA in 1979.

Nigel Lutton (centre) -- DUP picture

Nigel Lutton (centre) — DUP picture

Francie Molloy has been chosen by Sinn Féin to contest the election.  I look forward to reading some of the analysis in the morning about the implications of the latest developments within unionist politics.